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    Tuesday, April 08, 2014
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    Tuesday, March 25, 2014
  4. Art That Changed the World
    Sunday, March 09, 2014
  5. Reviews in Short: March 2014
    Sunday, March 02, 2014
  6. Blue Is the Warmest Colour
    Friday, February 28, 2014
  7. The Act of Killing
    Monday, February 10, 2014
  8. Amour
    Friday, February 07, 2014
  9. Reviews in Short: February 2014
    Monday, February 03, 2014
  10. The Daughters of Cain
    Friday, January 31, 2014

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Books







If Art Garfunkel feels the need to post a “books read” list on his Web site, then so does the Grouch.  Here is a list of Grouch’s literary conquests of the past 20 years – works of genius and works of dreck.  Click here.

Reviews in Short: April 2014



Klown

 


This Danish road-trip comedy recalls old-fashioned American slapstick, the type of goofiness we used to get from Laurel and Hardy – but with one big difference:  The sight gags, often hilarious, are also rated X.  Danish TV comics Frank Hvam and Casper Christensen star as oil-and-water pals who embark on a male-bonding wilderness trip that goes awry thanks to their own ineptitude and a 12-year-old boy who tags along for the ride.  Release:  2010  Grade:  B


*****


Stained




Canadian actress Tinsel Korey plays a troubled bookseller going through hell at work and at home – but who, or what, is responsible for that hell?  Stained tested my tolerance for the it was only a dream school of filmmaking, in which the viewer is never quite sure if what he sees happening is, in fact, really happening, and it doesn’t help that the first half of this psychological horror-show is slow.  On the plus side, Korey is good as a woman who doesnt handle stress particularly well.   Release:  2010  Grade:  B-


*****


The Woman




Well, The Woman aint boring.  Im not entirely sure what the movie is – black comedy, feminist revenge flick, unpleasant gorefest – because its a tonal mess, but it aint boring.  Sean Bridgers plays Henry Higgins from Hell, a country lawyer named Cleek who keeps his family in check with a mix of condescension, threats, and old-fashioned whuppings.  One fateful day Cleek spots a primitive woman in the wilds of Massachusetts (yes, apparently there are wilds in Massachusetts), decides to take her home with him, and then ... I cant explain it.  But it aint boring.  Release:  2011  Grade:  B


*****


Passion




Thirty years ago, Brian De Palma was king of the erotic thriller.  Today … not so much.  It’s a shame because Passion is certainly watchable and bears De Palma’s distinctive visuals and soundtrack.  But the story, in which a corporate cat-fight between executive Rachel McAdams and subordinate Noomi Rapace turns deadly, is confusing and illogical.  In De Palma movies of yore such narrative lapses were both minor and overshadowed by the man’s dazzling direction.  Not anymore.  Release:  2012  Grade:  C+

The Round House



by Louise Erdrich




Erdrich wins awards and is a critics’ darling, and there are aspects of her writing that I admire, but to me a lot of the prose in Round House – especially character motivations and behavior – does not ring true.

The protagonist is a 13-year-old Native American whose mother is raped, and so Erdrich is compelled to enter the boy’s head, but the result often reads like a middle-aged woman’s skewed idea of what teen boys think and do.  I also didn’t buy her characterization of some of the adults:  Episodes with a foul-mouthed, hunky Catholic priest are meant to be humorous but are just flat-out bizarre.  On the plus side, the climactic scenes are powerful, and the depiction of life on a North Dakota reservation is colorful. 

Some critics predict that this book will be thought of as an American-Indian To Kill a Mockingbird.  I suppose this is because the story is told from a child’s point of view, the boys father is an Atticus Finch-like judge, and the plot includes rape, racial tensions, and social injustice.  But To Kill a Mockingbird?  Perhaps in theme, but certainly not in execution.

Art That Changed the World


 




OK, it’s a “coffee-table book,” but it’s one lavishly illustrated coffee-table book.  Art doesn’t go into much detail about individual painters or paintings – actually, it doesn’t go into much detail about anything – but as a guide to finding what you like so that you can find more of what you like, it’s a precious resource.   Now, about that title … judging from the book’s content, the only “art that changed the world,” at least until recent years, was art produced in Europe.  Oh, really?

Reviews in Short: March 2014



Excision




It might test your tolerance for gross-out visuals, and I thought the ending was lame, but the witty horror-comedy Excision is also an amusing battle of wills between teenage social outcast Pauline (AnnaLynne McCord) and her mother, the uber-controlling Phyllis (Traci Lords).  Marlee Matlin, Ray Wise, Malcolm McDowell and John Waters lend support.  Release:  2012  Grade:  B


*****


Page One

 


A real treat for journalism junkies, but as a documentary about the New York Times, Page One crams an awful lot of material into a 90-minute slot.  We get: 1) the demise of print media, 2) the rise of new media, 3) highlights of the Times' illustrious past, and 4) a mini-biography of colorful media reporter David Carr.  But if you are a journalism junkie, it’s all newsworthy stuff.  Release:  2011   Grade:  B+


*****

A Hijacking

 


As I watched A Hijacking, a Danish thriller about Somali pirates who confiscate a cargo ship and its crew, I kept thinking, “That’s believable … yeah, I buy that.”  The hostage-taking and subsequent ransom negotiations with the head of the company that owns the ship were super-realistic – but that’s a problem for the movie:  Watching stone-faced businessmen conduct hostage talks as if they are mulling stock options does not make for gripping drama.  Release:  2012   Grade:  B-


*****

Nude Nuns with Big Guns




Sometimes movies like this can be campy good fun.  Other times, you should just read the title and run.  Nude Nuns with Big Guns – you decide.  As for me, I am obviously spending too much time on Netflix.   Release:  2010  Grade:  D


*****

Inequality for All




Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, all 4 feet 10 inches of him, makes the case that there is indeed class warfare in the United States, but its being waged on the middle class, not by it.  Skyrocketing income inequality is territory already covered in other films like 2012’s Park Avenue, but if youre new to the issue, Reich is an engaging messenger – even if the message he bears is maddening.  Release:  2013  Grade:  B+


*****

The Wolf of Wall Street




Watching the misbehaving clods in The Wolf of Wall Street is a bit like being the only sober person surrounded by drunks at a bar:  Everyone but you is having a good time.  Martin Scorsese’s biography of con artist Jordan Belfort is voyeuristically entertaining, in a Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous kind of way, but it’s also too long and the lesson – crime doesn’t pay – isn’t exactly big news.  Less than an hour into this sex-and-drug-fueled marathon, I pretty much wanted everyone on screen to go to prison.  There is, however, one great scene in which Leonardo DiCaprio learns what happens when you ignore the instructions on a bottle of pills.  Release:  2013  Grade:  B-

Blue Is the Warmest Colour



     


Please don’t misunderstand:  I’m just as thrilled as the next Al Bundy to watch attractive young actresses in the buff.  (Who am I trying to kid – I’m probably more thrilled than Al Bundy.)  But after suffering through the interminably dull, critically adored, After School Special called Blue Is the Warmest Colour, I was ready for something a bit more stimulating, such as a pile of needlework and an episode of Murder, She Wrote.

Blue, now streaming on Netflix and Amazon, won the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and enjoys a 90 percent “fresh” rating on the Web site, Rotten Tomatoes.  This near-universal acclaim mystifies me.  I would chalk it up to the fact that most film critics are horny, middle-aged men, were it not for the fact that I am a horny, middle-aged man (well, sometimes).



     


This overhyped, NC-17 version of Dawson’s Creek does have a few positive attributes:

The lead actress, Adele Exarchopoulos, is cute, in a Bugs Bunny-overbite kind of way.  She is fine as a French high-school girl discovering adulthood and sexuality courtesy of an older lesbian, played by Lea Seydoux, who is superb.  Both actresses excel at the actual craft of acting and at performing pornographic, lesbian “scissors” techniques in bed.

No, the fault here lies with director Abdellatif Kechiche, who was badly in need of 1) a strict mother on the set, and 2) an even stricter film editor.  Kechiche, obviously in love with the youthful Adele’s face, devotes roughly 45 minutes of his movie to close-ups of Adele as she pouts, looks pensive, looks sad, looks confused.  The explicit sex scenes are at least a respite from the endless face shots.



     


Again, the main actresses are good and certainly photogenic, but they aren’t interesting enough to sustain such a wispy story for an excruciating three hours.  It’s just girl meets girl, girl loses girl, blah blah blah.  The perils of young love.  Tears and heartbreak.

At the Telluride Film Festival in September, Seydoux and Exarchopoulos were asked what it was like acting for porn direc—er, the great auteur Kechiche.  “It was horrible,” said Seydoux.  When I realized, about two hours into Blue Is the Warmest Colour, that I still had to endure another hour, I felt exactly the same way.        Grade:  C-



 


(Editor’s note:  For all of the Al Bundys out there, we are including lots of screen captures from the infamous lesbian-sex scene, thereby sparing you the chore of actually watching the film.)


     


Director:  Abdellatif Kechiche   Cast: Lea Seydoux, Adele Exarchopoulos, Salim Kechiouche, Aurelien Recoing, Catherine Salee, Benjamin Siksou, Mona Walravens, Alma Jodorowsky   Release:  2013



     

Watch Trailers (click here)

The Act of Killing


 




Watching The Act of Killing, I learned that septuagenarian Anwar Congo, a genial-looking grandfather who lives in North Sumatra, has trouble sleeping. Anwar, once a prominent member of an Indonesian death squad, has bad dreams about a man he beheaded, and whose lifeless eyelids Anwar neglected to close before he drove off into the night.  Anwar estimates that, beginning in the mid-1960s, he personally executed 1,000 people.  But Anwar can take comfort because in much of Indonesia he and his elderly comrades are much respected.

These death-squad men are bad enough, but for me the most frightening aspect of The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimers Oscar-nominated documentary, is the society in which aging gangsters – men who carried out mass killings, supposedly with the goal of fighting communism – are not just tolerated, but often celebrated.  Just as in Nazi Germany, this type of genocide couldnt happen without the approval, tacit or overt, of the society in which it occurs.  It seems to be a nasty trait of the human race that, although we might not perpetrate violence ourselves, we get a vicarious thrill from watching others do so.


With the help of a friend, Anwar Congo playfully re-enacts one of his killings


Congo says he has nightmares about the atrocities and, apparently, he does get physically ill in the film while revisiting a killing ground.  But at other times, he seems just as unconcerned about his past as does most everyone else.

Oppenheimer apparently tricked Congo and his friends into discussing their sordid past by leading them to believe that they would, with the filmmakers help, create a Hollywood-style movie.  Everyone in Indonesia loves the movies, and Anwar is especially fond of John Wayne and The Godfather.  The movie-making scenes in this film – including re-enactments of Anwars nightmares – are surreal and disturbing.


Anwar (right) and fellow gangster Adi Zulkadry get the Hollywood treatment


Horrifying as the story of these men is, its hard to sit back and be too judgmental.  American movies inspired these guys; American propaganda demonized the communists (allegedly the target of the massacres, although anyone who fell into disfavor with the military or the gangsters was subject to execution) and, I suppose, made Anwar and his pals our allies.  But they were poor, uneducated, and without resources, so should we be surprised that in their fight against communism, they used not ideology but rather Brando and Pacino as role models?            Grade: A         




Director:  Joshua Oppenheimer  Featuring:  Anwar Congo, Herman Koto, Syamsul Arifin, Ibrahim Sinik, Yapto Soerjosoemarno, Safit Pardede, Jusuf Kalla, Adi Zulkadry, Soaduon Siregar  Release:  2012


     

An Indonesian television program celebrates Anwar (standing)


Watch Trailers  (click here)



Amour


 




Reasons you should watch this depressing French drama:

1)  It’s good for you because, unlike most movies, it addresses the issue of death in a realistic manner.  It’s a glimpse at what many of us have to look forward to – and that future ain’t particularly pretty, kids.

2)  It boasts two outstanding performances by French actors Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva as married music teachers whose retired lifestyle goes from comfort to trial when one of them falls ill.

3)  If you’re not sure where you stand on the issue of euthanasia, this film might help you make up your mind.

4)  It will remind you that most of the real heroes in life are not found in newspaper headlines.




Reason you won’t likely watch Amour more than once:

It’s long.  Yes, it’s not the kind of film we are supposed to “enjoy,” but it probably doesn’t require an unflinching two hours and seven minutes to make its point about love, commitment, and compassion.

Movies are usually about escapism.  Amour is anti-escapism, but watching two old people go through their daily existence has rarely been so riveting.   Grade:  A-


 


Director
:  Michael Haneke  Cast:  Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert, Alexandre Tharaud, William Shimell, Ramon Agirre, Rita Blanco, Carole Franck  Release:  2012


 

 Watch Trailers and Clips  (click here)

Reviews in Short: February 2014


 

Penthouse North (aka Blindsided)

  

Michelle Monaghan plays a blind woman who is terrorized in her New York City apartment by criminals looking for illegal goods.  If that sounds familiar, you might have seen Wait Until Dark, in which Audrey Hepburn plays a blind woman who is terrorized in her New York City apartment by criminals looking for illegal goods.  No good reason to check out this version, although Michael Keaton is cheekily entertaining as one of the bad guys.  Release:  2013   Grade:  C


*****

Jug Face




Jug Face opens with two hot young people having sex.  Soon thereafter, we learn that these two are brother and sister.  That’s different, I thought.  We then discover that the horny siblings are members of a backwoods clan who worship something called “the pit.”  That’s different, I thought.  Jug Face strayed just far enough from run-of-the-mill horror that I was intrigued – until cheap special effects and a threadbare story betrayed its low-budget origins.  (Bonus trivia:  This movie answers the question, “Whatever happened to Sean Young?”)  Release:  2013  Grade C


*****

Chop




Lance is a former drug addict trying to get his act together.  Problem is, he’s offended someone, and that someone has a bone to pick with Lance – quite literally, as it turns out, and Lance’s life soon becomes a nightmare of blackmail, torture, and missing fingers.  For awhile, when Lance is toyed with by a stranger who refuses to tell him what he’s done, Chop is delicious black comedy, and actors Will Keenan and Timothy Muskatell are amusing duelists.  But then … director Trent Haaga decides to cater to the gore-lovers in our midst, and the film devolves into a  live-action Itchy & Scratchy Show.  Release:  2011  Grade C+


                                                  *****

                                  House of Tolerance




A visual feast – and not just because of the female flesh on display.  The bordello sets, art direction and leisurely pace capture a bygone world (1899-1900) thats seductive but soulless, as director Bertrand Bonello concentrates on the cloistered, dead-end lives of a dozen high-class Parisian prostitutes and their indentured servitude to wealthy clients.  The photography is gorgeous and the actors are top-notch, but the movie itself, like transactions in a fancy brothel, is a bit cold.  Release:  2011  Grade:  B+


                                          *****

                                    Cottage Country




Must be tough living next door to the country that hosts Hollywood, the world’s premiere manufacturer of motion pictures.  That might give the film industry in your own country an inferiority complex.  I don’t know how else to explain Canada, which cranks out the most peculiar movies.  Cottage Country is a black comedy – in theory – about an engaged couple caught up in grisly murders at a rustic lakeside retreat, but its mix of yuks and yuck is a herky-jerky mess.  Release:  2013  Grade:  C-


*****

Sister




Sister is one of those slice-of-life dramas that rise or fall depending on how much emotion you invest in the main characters.  In this case, we watch as a family of two – 12-year-old Simon and twentysomething Louise – struggle to get by in the shadow of a posh Swiss mountain resort, Simon by stealing from rich guests and Louise by, well, not much.  I cared about the two of them, a bit, but not enough to compensate for the film’s slow stretches and a fairly predictable plot.  Release:  2012  Grade:  B-


*****

Deep Water

 


In 1968, while competing in a sailing race around the globe, a mild-mannered businessman named Donald Crowhurst encountered problems with his boat.  Buckling to intense personal and professional pressures, and with no hope of winning the race, for a time he managed to excite a breathless British press (and the world) by posting false “progress” reports.  Today, Crowhurst is a historical footnote, but this documentary about an English everyman who bit off more than he could chew, with tragic results, is both sad and thought-provoking.  Release:  2006  Grade:  B+

The Daughters of Cain



by Colin Dexter




Yes, there are murders and villains and red herrings in Daughters, but plot is never the main attraction in a Colin Dexter mystery.  The real appeal is twofold:  1) Dexter’s tetchy protagonist, Chief Inspector Morse, who relishes classical music, drinking, smoking, and women – not necessarily in that order; and 2) Dexter’s contagious love of the English language. If you dig masterful prose with your homicide investigations, Dexter is your man.  Hes certainly mine.

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